The New Skills and Capabilities Needed for Ecosystems

Posted By: Jon Lavietes Member Resources, ASAP Roundtables,

Alliance managers are good at evolving with the times and rapidly changing industry trends. That adaptability is being put to the test as we transition from traditional bilateral and multilateral partnership–based models to larger ecosystems, in which different combinations from a base of hundreds, if not thousands, of partners collaborate to develop, market, and sell all kinds of solutions. Some of the traditional alliance management skill set detailed in The ASAP Handbook of Alliance Management: A Practitioner’s Guide still applies, but new systems and structures need to be put in place to expedite and optimize these ecosystems.

Ard-Pieter de Man, CSAP, PhD, professor of knowledge networks and innovation at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, recently shared some helpful tips on how to change your approach to fit the ecosystem model in the latest ASAP roundtable, “How to Build an Ecosystem Capability.”

More Partners, Less Time, More Standardization

To understand how to organize alliance resources around ecosystems, it’s important to note the differences between alliances and ecosystems. Where the old saying “if you’ve seen one alliance, then you’ve seen one alliance” underscores the uniqueness of each collaboration, the sheer number of partners in an ecosystem forces a need for more standardization. Big platform operators like Apple, Salesforce, and Google issue standard contracts to companies that join their ecosystems, for example. 

“If you’ve seen one ecosystem partner, you’ve seen them all,” said de Man.  

And where the C-suite might be involved in each one of a company’s most strategic alliances, senior leadership needs only to bless the process for onboarding and working with new ecosystem entrants rather than granting approval for thousands of individual partners. Once partners are up and running in an ecosystem, everyone needs to move fast. There’s no time for the traditional alliance life cycle, which could take up to a year to complete. De Man insisted that ecosystems require “simple, more faster models to create partnerships.”

Dealing with partners and ecosystem processes on a mass scale changes the way trust manifests itself in organizational relationships. Where trust is built and instilled among the individuals working together in a traditional alliance, companies put their trust in the processes designed to foster engagement between partners and monitor the activity between them in an ecosystem. 

No Alliance Managers Needed?

De Man illustrated a new model for ecosystem partner engagement now in place at Portbase, the organization that runs the main commercial port in the Dutch city of Rotterdam. The port has four application development teams focused on innovations in the following areas: 1) logistics, 2) exports, 3) imports, and 4) safety and security. Each of these teams comes up with ideas for new apps in consultation with panels consisting of executives from client organizations. The teams will propose new initiatives to the port’s management team, which consults with a council consisting of decision makers from shipping companies, customs, the police, container terminals, and other important stakeholders in the port’s operation to decide which potential new apps get put on the port’s technology roadmap. 

“There are more ideas than resources,” said de Man, explaining the importance of prioritizing the development team’s ideas. 

The development teams collaborate with working groups made up of companies from the port area and the port authority itself to build these apps and ensure that they are compatible with all stakeholders’ systems. Interestingly, one familiar face is absent in this developer-led model.

“There’s a lot of collaboration going on that is quite intensive on the alliance level, but there is no need for alliance management because the core of it is just done by direct interaction with these client panels,” noted de Man. “No alliance managers are needed anymore even though it’s one big alliance.”

Homing In on Ecosystem Challenges

The Portbase example set the stage for de Man to outline the four biggest challenges in managing ecosystems. 

  1. Functional and technical – How do you get the right number and type of partners with the appropriate technical capability? “This is especially challenging if you don’t have an overview of who’s active in your ecosystem,” de Man said.
  2. Legal and ethical – How do you know if partners are behaving badly, and how do you maintain integrity of operations over time? De Man suggested regularly checking customs, police, and other public databases over the course of a year to make sure that ecosystem participants are operating virtuously and lawfully, and removing those that have fallen short of moral standards immediately, just as Apple did in 2020 when it expelled 400,000 of the 2 million apps in its platform because the companies didn’t adhere to code-of-conduct standards.
  3. Temporal – How do you keep the ecosystem attractive for its players? How do you ensure that participants update their technology? Trends evolve and priorities change quickly, and an ecosystem has to change with them. “You may look for partners in China now, but maybe in a couple of years the market in Africa will be more interesting,” said de Man.
  4. Competitive – Coopetition is the norm in alliances, but it’s also prevalent in ecosystems—in a different form. De Man spoke of the practice of “multihoming,” having an app on multiple platforms (e.g., Apple, Google, and Facebook) simultaneously. “Do you want that as an organization or are you looking at more of an exclusive relationship to be more distinctive in the market?” asked de Man.  

De Man concluded the presentation by providing the blueprint for dealing with these challenges. Retrieve the recording of “How to Build an Ecosystem Capability” in the ASAP Content Hub now to learn how to curate and orchestrate an ecosystem to foster dynamic cocreation with and by partners. (See also de Man’s contributed article outlining the basics of ecosystem orchestration, curation, and cocreation, “Governing Ecosystems: What’s It All About?,” Strategic Alliance Quarterly, Q3 2020.)

Also, de Man has much more to share on the requisite skills for the various types of ecosystem manager positions in our piece “So You Want to Manage an Ecosystem…,” which appears in the latest edition of Strategic Alliance Quarterly hitting ASAP members’ inboxes later this month. In addition, de Man will be collaborating with Leona Kral, CSAP, founder and chief connections officer at Mycelia Solutions and a veteran alliance manager who just recently completed a 14-year tenure running some of Verizon’s most strategic alliances, to present on the same topic at the 2023 ASAP Global Alliance Summit in the session “Alliance vs. Ecosystem Capability: What’s the Difference?” Register for the Summit today!